Red v. Blue: The Single Provider Dilemma

by Erik Adams

Recently, in the never ending quest to cut costs, many law firms have gone “single provider”: ending a subscription to Lexis while keeping Westlaw, or the other way around.


The pitch made by the vendors is that the cost savings will be significant, both in actual costs and intangible ones: your organization will only have to manage passwords for one service, training will be simplified, invoice processing and billing will be less work, etc. Both Westlaw and Lexis have marketing materials that promote how each service provides all the legal information a firm will need, and both can name law firms that have taken the plunge.

Greg Lambert discussed this briefly in a recent post on his 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, where he reviewed some predictions from 5 years ago. Back in 2011, Greg thought a lot of firms would drop one of the major services, but that hasn’t happened as quickly as he expected. In his recent post he wrote:

One of the biggest barriers (in my opinion) is that the vendors became very clever in bundling products and providing discounts toward some products if you kept or added additional products. The end result is that it made it much more difficult to jettison a vendor entirely because of the ripple effect that it caused on other (unrelated) products.

The trend of law firms going “single provider” may not be as big as Lambert expected, but it is definitely happening. It’s tempting to law firm management because of the cost savings associated with maintaining only one provider. But librarians that I have spoken to about the issue are generally united in thinking that it is a bad idea for the simple reason that if your firm chooses one service, you will inevitably need materials from the other. Maybe the librarian at a Westlaw firm has to track down a quote from Nimmer on Copyright, which is only available on Lexis. Or someone at a Lexis firm needs a section from Prosser and Keeton on Torts, which is available on Westlaw. In those circumstances, what is a law firm librarian to do?

Some law firms mitigate the effects of going sole provider and losing access to materials by maintaining a small print collection to fill prominent gaps. A firm may have Corbin on Contracts in their Lexis electronic library but maintain a copy of West’s Williston on Contracts in print, for example. Some firms rely on local public law libraries; where I work, we are fortunate enough to have several in our area that still have extensive print collections, and we can borrow volumes or get copies of pages with minimum fuss. Minimum fuss being a fee, if we have time, the attorney is willing to approve the expense, and the client is willing to foot the bill.

Often, a law firm librarian will turn to a local mailing list and rely on what economists like to call the “gift economy,” where goods (i.e. materials unique to Westlaw or Lexis) are “… given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards” (as Wikipedia puts it.) In any gift economy, there is the problem of the “poison of the gift”: a gift “given without a return can place recipients in debt and, hence, in dependent status.”

When a librarian asks for help on a mailing list, it puts the rest of us in a dilemma. We want to share resources; AALL’s Ethical Principles clearly state, “We promote open and effective access to legal and related information.” But each time the librarian at a single provider firm dips into the well they create a debt to other law firms. The debt may be intangible, but it exists, and it eventually reflects negatively on the status of the firm constantly depending on the help.

There’s a kind of poison on the giving side as well. Anyone with a family member perpetually asking to “borrow” money will be familiar with the situation. At first you help; then it starts to feel like an imposition; then you get annoyed and stand back in disbelief when someone else jumps in to help after you refused. More than once I have thought “if you need Westlaw that often, you shouldn’t have gone Lexis only.” (And vice versa, of course.)

Aside from abstract economic ideas, our professional inclination to help could cause problems for the attorneys who employ us. Maybe the librarian looking for the “WL” version of a “US DIST LEXIS” citation is at a firm opposite us on some matter and helping the opposite firm may be considered a conflict of interest. If our bosses took the time to understand, they wouldn’t be happy with the fact that even though they are saving money with a single provider, that savings can come at the high cost of a loss of reputation.

This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Ethics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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